My father was a lawyer, and a damn good one, at that. He spent the majority of his career practicing corporate law, which meant he had an opportunity to educate people around him who otherwise wouldn’t have had a lot of access to all things law.
When I was a lot younger, maybe in my early teens, I remember once saying to my dad, “…but it’s totally legal,” about some topic or other. He took the opportunity to teach me what that really means when I’m saying it.
“Legal” is not something to aspire to. It’s not a high bar. In fact, as he said, “It’s the lowest acceptable form of human behavior.” It’s one step away from illegal, which is criminal.
To say you’re “legally compliant” doesn’t actually say much. It’s not a badge of honor to wear or something to be proud of. Because the simple truth is:
“Legal” is not ethical.
“Legal” is not moral.
Acting “within the law” is doing just enough to not be criminal… today. Because laws are subjective and made by people in power, they change with the times. They are a moving bar. Not too long ago, there were a lot of “legal” things that today would seem abhorrent (slavery, child labor, women as property, domestic violence, etc.)
Legal is not the same as ethical.
Legal is not the same as moral.
I thank God every day for my father teaching me that concept at such a young age, because it shifted my perspective. Instead of thinking of being “legally compliant” as the high-water mark, I came to see being ethical and having a moral compass as the high-water marks and the law as the lowest acceptable form of behavior in which I could ever engage.
Where I see a problem lurking in today’s world is that a lot of people and companies do the reverse. They give themselves gold stars and accolades for simply doing the minimum: acting in accordance with the law. (Just one step lower and they would all be criminals.) And they set ethics and morality as something up in the stars, nice to look at but impossible to reach, so they rarely try. *sigh*
Those stars, however, are not very far away. They’re within reach of everybody, because to me, being ethical means being human and having compassion, making decisions from a place of empathy, equity, and understanding. And a moral compass is about making the deliberate decision to behave ethically.
So, the next time someone tells you they were “acting legally” or “in accordance with the law” – it might be worth it to dig a little deeper and find out what they really mean, because they’re not saying very much if they use those words.